“Turning” a powerful documentary about art and freedom

by Brittany Spanos

turning, 2012, film, documentary, antony and the johnsons

via forma.org.uk

“Just step into your moment. That’s what we’re trying to do, I guess.”

Uttered just prior to a final performance of Antony and the Johnsons’ “Turning” concert/performance, this sound advice is what Antony Hegarty gives the thirteen women who model on his stage. The counsel seems trite, however, after an hour of these artists baring souls, bodies and whatever else they have to offer in desire for liberation. Stepping into their moments seems to be what they’re all best at.

But maybe what these women need is reassurance. Throughout the documentary “Turning,” a collaboration between the band and filmmaker Charles Atlas, the models are without names and are defined solely by the intimate, personal stories they each emotionally reveal on camera. A poignancy is made evident as specific tales are paired with defining songs; performance shots of Antony along with the women displaying proudly the hard work they have done are emotional interjections between revelatory statements.

The effect is one of candidacy; what is seen on camera feels nothing short of honest and raw vulnerability at its finest. The women are as delicate as they are strong and are made beautiful and whole by what makes them unique. They are a motley crew of ladies, where most fall under the umbrella of queer identities while all are just survivors of life. Comfort to them is standing on that stage every night as Antony sings just for them, and their freedom and their struggle because this is more than just a concert film—it’s a performance art confessional.

Between all their differences and backgrounds, a community has been built between the women who encourage each other’s beauty and strength. The do make-up, see the sights of London, and, most importantly, share secrets and stories together that help bind them beyond sharing a stage.

While performance scenes are crucial if only for the lyrics being uttered from Hegarty’s Patrick Wolf belt tinged with a Jeff Buckley timbre, very little context is given for who this band is, but a sense of why they do what they do is effortlessly made apparent through the tear-inducing interviews each woman participates in. The name ‘Antony and the Johnsons’ is never verbalized and is devoid of VH1 “Behind the Music” types of reflection. With that being said, however, learning more about the band’s music would have helped fill the void and answered lingering questions. As much as it is a movie for and about the outsider, the sense this lack of context actually delivers is that one must be an insider (or, at least, a knowledgeable Antony and the Johnsons fan) to read between all-too-important lines.

But much like the faces without names who are highlighted in the show and through the up-close-and-personal interviews, the band’s identity belongs to them alone. In a documentary that explores the deep, internal search for what shapes us, it is refreshing to feel like the self-formed identities that the models begin to form is something they now claim sole ownership. For many of the subjects, their personal search is cleverly accented by Hegarty mewling in song the lyric, “Are you a boy or are you a girl?” Of course, the answer for all of them is neither because, as proven by the strength is takes to expose every inch of their self in such a public fashion, is that they are nothing less than beautiful women. And they are free.

Brittany Spanos is a staff writer. Email her at film@nyunews.com.


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